Friday, 30 December 2011

My Favourite Pubs - The Old Crown, Hesket Newmarket, Cumbria

Here is the second in my mini-series  'My Favourite Pubs.' If you have any suggestions for other ones I can try please leave a comment or tweet and let me know. I am willing to travel in the interests of research!

The Old Crown - Hesket Newmarket

Hesket Newmarket is right on the northern edge of the Lake District,and I first visited about five years ago. This was not an accident. A friend of mine Dave, when hearing I was heading that way, informed me I should not miss The Old Crown as it was his favourite pub in the country. Dave knows his onions when it comes to beer, so this was not advice to be easily ignored. So, after a thrilling day of terror on Striding Edge, we headed up to Hesket in the camper van to see what was so good about it.

There are some pubs that when you walk in them, you know immediately you have made a mistake. The chattering of the customers dies away and they silently watch as you make your way nervously to the bar to order a pint. You can feel their eyes boring into you as you peruse the pumps and a cold sweat breaks out. You order a half, down it in one and get out of there.

The patrons in the Old Crown, on the other hand, go out of their way to be friendly. On my first visit and on all my subsequent ones, I have never failed to easily fall into conversation with the other customers and the bar staff are always friendly.

Maybe this has something to do with the fact that The Crown is a co-operative, formed in 2003 when 125 customers clubbed together to buy the pub. The brewery behind the pub had become a co-operative a few years earlier so it made sense. Prince Charles has visited the pub a couple of times and was served a complimentary drink as he apparently doesn't carry any money with him. Maybe I'll try that next time!

The beer is supplied by Hesket Newmarket Brewery, also a co-operative and situated rihgt behind the pub. They range from Scafell Blonde, a pale golden beer which uses some lager malts - to the dark, maltiness of Great Cockup Porter, and many other delicious brews including Blencathra, Skiddaw Special and the legendary Doris' 90th Birthday Ale.

My personal favourite is the Skiddaw Special, which slides down exceedingly well with one of the Old Crown curries.

Old climbing equipment and signed pictures of various climbers are around the walls, including Chris Bonington  who downed the first pint of 'Doris' back in 1998.

And at the end of the evening its just a short stagger along the road to Greenhill Farm which offers camping facilities in the field behind the farmhouse. Hopefully some forward planning will have taken place and the tent erected before a session in the pub - or working out just which pole goes where may be something of a trial...
Well appointed facilities at campsite

Saturday, 17 December 2011

My Favourite Pubs - Hunter's Lodge Inn, Priddy

I was supposed to be out walking with Yvonne today but am confined to the house with a horrible lurgy.  I'm sat shivering under a quilt, a blanket and a four seasons sleeping bag. I should be using my involuntary confinement to write my Christmas cards. I need to sit down and get on with it. Soon. In a minute. As a displacement activity, I thought I would begin to compile a list of some of the favourite pubs I have come across in my beer travels. I know I have only scratched the surface and that there are many fine pubs out that I don't know about, so any suggestions are most welcome.

Today's top pub:

Hunters Lodge Inn, Priddy

I love this pub. It's an effort to get to, sat on a lonely crossroads a couple of miles outside the ancient settlement of Priddy at the top of the Mendip Hills. This is Bronze Age barrow country, Roman lead mining country, folk festival and sheep fair country. It's also caving country. On the side of the pub in the carpark is a low square stone structure with a metal gate at the top. It looks like it might contain a well. In fact it is the entrance to Hunters Lodge Inn Sink, one of the many caves on Mendip. And just the other side of Priddy is Swildon's Hole, the longest cave on Mendip.

The exterior is unprepossessing, like many buildings up on Mendip it is faced with a grey pebbledash, and the pub sign hasn't been painted for many a year. Nor has the inside. This is one of those joyous discoveries, a pub which hasn't been mucked about with. It is clean and homely, in winter the fires will be burning in the grates, and the flagstone floors have been polished by countless boots crossing the threshold. No jukebox or faux Olde Englishe decor here, this is the real thing. I particularly like the ancient wallpaper, pre-historic figures hunting, which must be at least 50 years old.

The landlord and his wife, Roger and Jackie, are diamonds. Many the time my friends and I have staggered over the threshold after a mis-timed caving trip, mud splattering our faces, fifteen minutes before closing time and starving hungry.

'You' want some food?' Roger gives one of his half smiles and Jackie goes off to the kitchen to sort us out. None of the usual 'the kitchen is only open between 6 and 9' bollocks. Hearty bowls of chilli, pasta, macaroni cheese and other delights are all served with huge doorsteps of the most delicious fresh bread. As for the beer, I have been visiting this pub for years and have never, never, had even a slightly out of condition beer. It is always tip top. Dispensed by gravity from barrels lined up behind the bar, the local Cheddar Ales Potholer is always available, as is Butcombe. I don't know how Roger does it, but the Butcombe Beer here is the best I have tasted. There's generally one or two other guest ales and cider as well.

Local farmers and villagers, walkers, cavers and cyclists rub shoulders here. As long as you are not a prat (Roger doesn't suffer fools gladly) and as long as you turn off your mobile phone in the pub, you will love it.

See also my blog entry for 25 March 2011 Mission Abandoned

By the way, don't try and find a website for the pub, you will be wasting your time!

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Cotswold Fringe

I'll say one thing for my teenage daughter - she gets me out of the house. This morning she was growling around the place like a bear cub with toothache. When she announced she would be late going to college that day - something about her teacher was off sick and anyway she had to do her make-up (a minimum of an hour for this), I abandoned any idea of getting some writing done and instead I donned my boots, left her to it, and strode off down the road. It was a bright and beautiful December day and I did want to test my new insoles after the agonies of Boscastle. Or so I reasoned anyway.

I had crossed three fields before I gave any thought to where I was heading. At that point I realised I had, in my haste to leave the house, forgotten to pack my OS map. Never mind, I decided to take a regular route up Kelston Round Hill, and one which I have completed many times before, but which I never tire of, the view is superlative. On a clear day like today I could see across the Severn to Wales and down to the ridge of the Mendips, the soft, green hills of Somerset rising and falling like a gentle quilt over the land.

Cotwold Way up to Prospect Stile
The wind however was fair whipping round the tump and so before too long I headed down the other side of the hill and joined the Cotswold way for a short stretch to four ways, just below Prospect Stile. Here the lane from North Stoke to Weston near Bath crosses the Cotswold Way. The former is clearly an ancient pathway, as there was a Roman Villa at North Stoke and this is the obvious route there from the Roman town of Aquae Sulis, it is possible that the path dates from at least Roman times. I decided to turn off the Cotswold Way and head down the lane as of the four routes, this was the only one I had never tried. Well I've done it now, but I doubt I will bother going that way again. The lane headed down the hill and came out in the upper part of Weston, necessitating a trek down to the village. I may as well have turned right off the tump, I would have ended in the same place and the route is more scenic and less muddy.

After yesterday's downpours the lane was something of a quagmire and I slithered and squelched my way down the lane, all the while collecting more and more mud on the soles of my boots. By the time I reached the bottom I felt like I was wearing leaded boots like my Deep Sea Diver Action Man  used to wear when I was a kid (handed down from my older, male cousin). I could barely lift each leg up as I stomped my way into Weston. I was also very hungry and was relieved to see that the bakers was full of people in wellies and boots so didn't feel too bad about stomping in there to buy a cheese and salad roll for sustenance.

Munching on the roll I wandered on down the main street. I spotted a sign for the ongoing section of the Cotswold Way  into Bath and on a whim I followed the sign. To my surprise, as I knew Bath was straight on, the path turned left at the church and started climbing a rather steep hill. The Cotswold Way is clearly determined to keep it scenic all the way. After puffing my way up a lane and a field or two the path signposted off the right. Now I was in something of a quandary. My home was about six miles west. Bath was two miles east. So, I could either follow the Cotswold Way all the way to Bath and then get on a train, I cold retrace my steps, or I could just keep climbing the hill and hopefully at the top get a fix on my whereabouts to strike out for home. I decided on the third option and kept climbing up the hill. After all the effort so far, it seemed like a waste not to at least try and get to the top. That way, I reasoned, it should hopefully be downhill all the way home.

On the way up I was treated to magnificent views of what I regard as the 'back' of Kelston Hill. For me the 'front' of the hill is the one I can see from my kitchen window although no doubt Bathonians would disagree. The path passed through Primrose Community Woodland from which I discovered that I was climbing Primrose Hill. The Woodland is run by a community trust. Judging by the signs around the place they seems to have a thing about dogshit, which is fair enough, I'm not keen either, but a long rant about it on the front page of their website doesn't exactly encourage one to visit:

The collection box is now in place, when you visit the wood just think about all the costs involved in this wood and empty your pockets and purses into the box. However, just after it was installed one selfish dog owner allowed their dog to foul the ground right by the collection box and didn't clear it up. There are just a few dog walkers who are determined to give all dog owners a bad name. Just remember that it is these same people whose lack of care resulted in dog walkers being banned from other sites around Bath. So, it is up to everyone to keep their eyes open to identify those who wish to foul it up for everybody else. If you see anybody not being responsible, please gently remind them of the bins. If anyone objects to this please send details of dog and owner to the trustees.

If I was a dog owner I would feel unwelcome and if not a dog owner, why would I want to go somewhere covered in dogshit?

Anyway, I managed to cross the woodland unscathed. As the path emerged into a hillocky field, there was a magnificent view of Lansdown (Beckford's) Tower, its gilded top gleaming in the winter sunshine. Born in 1759, William Beckford was the son of 'Alderman' Beckford who had made vast amounts of money on the back of Jamaican sugar and slavery and was one of the richest men in England.

Filthy rich, ridiculously eccentric and pilloried for being homosexual; William Beckford scandalised and fascinated Victorian society in equal measure. He made no money in his lifetime but was extraordinarily talented at spending it. He had Lansdown Tower built after he moved to Bath from the enormous gothic Fonthill Abbey, the largest private house ever built in the UK, but which unfortunately collapsed under it's own weight in 1825. Beckford had sold Fonthill in 1823 to clear his debts. He didn't stop spending though, and had the tower built to house his now somewhat depleted art collection. He died in 1844.
(A useless piece of trivia - Beckford was also the great-great-great-grandfather of Prince Rainer III of Monaco.)

Well, back on the top of Lansdown it was getting very cold so after admiring the tower I set off across the ridge across playing fields and then Lansdown Racecourse to rejoin the Cotswold Way at Prospect Stile.
Prospect Stile
Lansdown Racecourse

The lane to North Stoke

From here it was a pleasant trot down the lane to North Stoke and then Swineford. I did hesitate just before Swineford when I came to a sign on the stile which said "BEEF BULLS IN FIELD'. I know that beef bulls are not supposed to be aggressive but I could see one of them and it was a big bastard. But there was no way I wanted to go all the way round so I found a stick in the hedge, just in case, and strode across the field. The bull stood and stared at me for a while but didn't move. Nevertheless I was relieved when I vaulted over the stile at the other side of the field.

All the stress, I felt, justified a pit stop at the Swan Inn for a pint of Gem from Bath Ales Brewery. This is one of my favourite beers, it's just a shame it's always on the expensive side. I nicely asked the barman to fill it right to the top, no way I was going to settle for 90% full at over three quid a pint. From the Swan it was a short walk across the field to the railway bridge that crosses the Avon and then back across the fields to my home. A good walk although the bad news was that my new insoles had made no difference whatsoever, for the last few miles my feet were in agony and I kept letting out involuntary whimpers of pain. Only one cure for footache like that - give them a good soak in a bowl of water whilst simultaneously sipping a nice bottle of Old Speckled Hen. 

Cows on Lansdown

River Avon

My Route is Here